Monday, September 25, 2017

Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Four



A good volume in a great series
I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. This is the sixth volume I’ve finished in the series, having previously read and reviewed volumes One, Two, Three, Seven, and Eight. (Rather than reading them in order, I’m just buying whichever volumes pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.) The stories and novellas reprinted in these volumes are frequently excellent, and even the worst selections are usually quite good. The breadth and depth of Simak’s speculative imagination and literary talent is just amazing. Having said all that, I must regretfully admit that Grotto of the Dancing Deer (Volume Four) is my least favorite of the volumes I’ve read thus far.

The title selection is certainly not the problem. “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” about a scientist studying prehistoric cave paintings, is a brilliant archaeo-sci-fi tale that manages to be both astounding and moving. Another excellent selection, in a more humorous vein, is “Crying Jag,” which features an alien who gets drunk on human sadness. “Hunger Death,” an exciting medical mystery that takes place on Venus, is also a strong entry, as is “Jackpot,” about a band of interplanetary thieves who stumble upon an enormous storehouse of goods that may or may not be priceless. Even this volume’s western novella (Simak wrote more than just science fiction), “The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch,” is one of the author’s better efforts in that genre.

The collection falters on a few fronts, beginning with “Mutiny on Mercury.” Originally published in 1931, editor David W. Wixon surmises that this is probably the first story Simak ever wrote for professional publication. Though it presents an interesting vision of what life might be like at a mining colony on Mercury, it is heavy with the mindless violence of the pulp-fiction era and displays little promise of the author’s mature literary style. Clearly, he had some growing to do when he wrote this one, but thankfully he would later go on to greatness.

About half of the stories in the collection don’t really live up to their full potential. Simak establishes an interesting vision of the future or of another planet, but the story he builds upon that foundation just doesn’t do justice to the premise. The aforementioned “Jackpot,” which gets a little weak towards the end, is the best of such cases. “Day of Truce” would be the worst. In this story, Simak establishes a dystopian, militaristic vision of suburbia, then squanders the social commentary on a MacGyver-esque tactical scenario. “The Civilization Game” likewise tries to make insightful points about humanity’s future, but those points feel a bit overstretched in its wargames plotline. “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a short-short entry that feels like a preliminary sketch for other better Simak stories. “Unsilent Spring,” which Simak cowrote with his son Richard S. Simak, a chemist, is another medical mystery like “Hunger Death,” but it takes place on Earth. Resembling an episode of the television programs Quincy or House, it has a strong theoretical foundation, but once the problem is diagnosed the plot just fizzles to an end.

I’ve come to expect great things from Simak, so I’m being nitpicky here. With the exception of “Mutiny on Mercury” and “Day of Truce,” these are all four-star stories or better. You really can’t go wrong with this series, but if I had to recommend a single volume this would not be it. Volumes One, Two, Seven, and Eight are all closer to perfection than this one.
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Friday, September 22, 2017

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway



Deadpan delivery through dangerous times
Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms takes place during World War I and relates the experience of the war through the first-person account of an American serving in the Italian Army. The narrator is an ambulance driver, holds the rank of lieutenant, and supervises a small squad of fellow paramedics serving on the Italian front. This is all revealed slowly over the course of the book, and it isn’t until about halfway through that we learn his name is Frederic Henry. Early in the book, Henry is wounded and spends time in a hospital in Milan, where he meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.

A Farewell to Arms is the first novel I’ve read by Hemingway, although I have read some of his short stories. I generally prefer older books of naturalist and romanticist literature, and I was worried he might be too modern for my tastes. To my pleasant surprise, Hemingway uses modernist techniques like stream of consciousness sparingly, only in the most emotionally tense moments, when it is most appropriate. A Farewell to Arms is quite modernist, however, in another respect: its deliberate avoidance of drama. It is almost as if Hemingway goes out of his way to deprive his audience of any satisfying dramatic moments, as if to deliver a thrill or a tear would be a cliché. The narrator relates the most frightening and stressful moments of life like war, birth, and death with a delivery so deadpan he could be reading the phone book. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened—in feelingless monotone. I don’t require a war novel to contain combat scenes, but there ought to be some moments of emotional power that illustrate the effect that war has on human lives, instead of just a series of meals and pointless conversations. At one point, a person is shot and killed (not by the enemy) and the event is merely glossed over in a sentence or two as if nothing ever happened. That should have been a shocking moment in the character’s development, but to shock would be too conventional, so instead it is treated as a commonplace occurrence.

This deliberate eschewing of emotional stimulation is most evident in Henry’s romance with Barkley. They have sex, drink wine, and engage in terrible dialogue which makes her sound stupid. Henry repeatedly says he loves her, but it is difficult for the reader to see why, other than she’s beautiful and available. It is not easy to care for such a thinly drawn character, which makes any scene in which the two are in danger that much more difficult to become emotionally invested in. All bets are off in the final chapter, however, which is far more visceral and moving than the book that precedes it, even though it has nothing to do with the war. Though the outcome is predictable, Henry’s reaction to it is the best writing in the book. If the entire novel were as good as its final chapter, its status as a masterpiece of American literature would be easier to understand.

The novel is based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy, which would explain why he chose such an unusual perspective on the First World War, rather than something more indicative of the typical Doughboy’s experience. For all its faults, A Farewell to Arms is a pretty good war novel. It is worlds better than John Dos Passos’s boring and overly poetic World War I novel Three Soldiers, yet doesn’t succumb to the sensationalistic macho excesses of Norman Mailer’s World War II epic The Naked and the Dead. To some extent, I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and given Hemingway’s reputation, I doubt this is his best work, but it is good enough to make me want to give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try.
 

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Monseiur Lecoq by Émile Gaboriau



A brilliant work of pre-Sherlock detective fiction
In the genre of detective fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes is considered the benchmark by which all other fictional sleuths are judged. Many are quick to point out, however, that Conan Doyle did not invent the genre. Edgar Allen Poe is often credited as the founder of modern detective fiction with his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its detective C. Auguste Dupin cited as an obviously influential forerunner of Holmes. Between Poe and Conan Doyle, however, there was another excellent pioneering detective novelist who has largely faded into obscurity: Émile Gaboriau. In 1869, almost two decades before Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, the Frenchman Gaboriau published his brilliant novel Monsieur Lecoq. Incredibly long but never boring, Monsieur Lecoq, like many lengthy novels of its day, was published in two volumes. The first book, subtitled The Inquiry, is a delightfully complex cat-and-mouse game between a police detective and the suspected murderer he hopes to convict. The second volume, subtitled The Honor of the Name, tells the back story of the crime in a dramatic tale of romance and revenge that’s on a par with the epics of Balzac, Victor Hugo, or Alexandre Dumas, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Misérables.

As the novel opens, the Paris police are responding to a disturbance at a tavern in a seedy neighborhood. Upon entering the establishment, they find two dead bodies and one man in the process of dying from a head wound. The apparent killer attempts to escape out the back door but is apprehended. Among the detectives present is a celebrated veteran named Gévrol who settles for a simple explanation to what he perceives as a typical crime. An up-and-coming young detective named Lecoq, looking to prove his mettle, begs to differ with his superior and asks to be given the opportunity to further investigate the crime scene. Upon examining the site, Lecoq discovers footprints in the snow that indicate the presence of additional persons at the scene, possibly accomplices to the crime. Additional evidence shows that this murder was no simple affair. Employing his prodigious faculty of deductive reasoning, Lecoq formulates a theory of the incident that is ridiculed by his coworkers, yet he risks his career to pursue the truth. What follows is an ingenious police procedural which never ceases to baffle and amaze. Every time Lecoq formulates a strategy for solving the case, and the reader thinks he’s got it figured out, the suspect thwarts their efforts with new twists that make the case even more complicated and puzzling.

The second part of the novel explains the events leading up to the mysterious crime by tracing the lives of the characters involved back forty or fifty years to the time of the Bourbon Restoration of 1815. As the ramifications of Revolutionary turmoil play out in a formerly peaceful rural district, fortunes are lost and gained, lives are changed forever, and violence erupts, sparking an animosity between families that lingers for decades. Just as Holmes often disappears for a few chapters in his novels, Lecoq is almost entirely absent from this second volume. Nevertheless, it is an essential component to Gaboriau’s grand scheme. The length and complexity of this sweeping narrative can be frustrating at times, but the patient reader is richly rewarded.

After reading Monsieur Lecoq, it is difficult to understand why Gaboriau is not a household name like Conan Doyle, Poe, or Dumas. If this book is an accurate indication of his body of work, he certainly deserves greater renown. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Monsieur Lecoq may be too labor intensive for the casual reader, but it definitely deserves to be read by any enthusiast of French literature or detective fiction.
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Monday, September 18, 2017

Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography by Joseph R. McElrath Jr.



A treasure trove for Norris completists
Frank Norris is one of my favorite writers. I’d like to think that I’ve read his complete works, but that’s a tough accomplishment to claim. Norris is best known as a novelist, and when he died at age 32 he had only completed seven novels, one of which (Vandover and the Brute) was published posthumously. Two volumes of short stories, A Deal in Wheat and The Third Circle, were also published shortly after his death, as well as a collection of literary criticism and essays entitled The Responsibilities of the Novelist. In his brief career as a man of letters, however, Norris published literally hundreds of articles, short stories, essays, poems, and plays, scattered among publications like The Overland Monthly, The San Francisco Wave, and American Art and Literary Review. In his 1992 book Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography, noted Norris scholar Joseph R. McElrath Jr. makes sense of Norris’s extensive and diverse body of work.

Prior to this book, the most authoritative bibliography of Norris was probably Kenneth A. Lohf and Eugene P. Sheehy’s Frank Norris: A Bibliography from 1959, which only ran about 100 pages. McElrath’s book, about thrice as long, goes into far greater detail and compiles a much more extensive list of Norris’s works. For the novels, McElrath not only provides the history of each edition but also gives physical descriptions of the books themselves, an invaluable resource for book collectors. McElrath then enumerates the first appearances in various publications of over 300 articles, stories, and other short pieces by Norris. The book also includes a list of over 500 articles that have previously been erroneously attributed to Norris. Finally, in a brief section on works about Norris, McElrath does not attempt a comprehensive list, but only highlights the “principal works” in the field. The exhaustive detail of McElrath’s research is staggering; the book could serve as a model of how bibliographic research should be conducted and presented.

This book was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press as part of their Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography. As far as I can tell, that series has been discontinued and all its volumes are out of print. This sort of detailed bibliographic research used to be a major component of literary scholarship. Look in any university library and you’ll find an entire section—the Z call letters—devoted to it. It seems this sort of research has fallen by the wayside in recent years, however, partly because scholars are more concerned with psychoanalyzing their literary subjects and partly because people just expect to find this sort of information on the Internet. To assume the latter would be a mistake. This type of detailed publication history is a major undertaking, one that only a scholar of McElrath’s caliber can pull off. This book is a valuable, authoritative reference for literary scholars and book collectors, and an interesting and educational volume for avid readers like myself to browse through. Because the conventions of bibliographic notation use a lot of abbreviations, it’s not always the most accessible text. Sometimes it appears as if the entries were written in code, and some knowledge of book manufacturing is required (I work for a publisher). The only fault that I can really find with the book, however, is that it was published back in 1992, so it doesn’t include more recent scholarship like McElrath’s own two-volume The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, or the biography he cowrote with Jesse S. Crisler, Frank Norris: A Life. Even after twenty-five years, however, this is still the most complete bibliography of Norris’s literary career ever published.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamsun



Reflections on a vagabond life
Under the Autumn Star, a short novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1906 under the Norwegian title of Under Høststjærnen. It is the first volume in a trilogy, the second book of which is entitled A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings. The third and final volume has been published in English as either The Last Joy or Look Back in Happiness. In English-language editions, the first two volumes are often confusingly lumped together into one book entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer.

Under the Autumn Star is narrated by an educated man who comes from a “good family.” As the book opens, he has taken up residence at a rented country cottage. He has spent time in the city and has cultivated sophisticated manners, but he has grown tired of urban life and has decided to live a quieter and more solitary existence. Before long, however, he decides rather than stay put at this seaside retreat, he will wander the countryside as an itinerant handyman, passing himself off as a common laborer and earning his living with his hands. Often in partnership with other wandering workmen he meets along the way, he stops at various farms, looking for work and requesting shelter. While digging wells, cutting wood, or excavating trenches, he and his fellow workmen often have their eyes on the wives, daughters, or servant girls of the landholders that employ them.

As the story develops, we learn the name of this narrator—Knud Pedersen—which also happens to be the birth name of the author, thus indicating that this is an autobiographical work. If indeed this is a faithful representation of Hamsun’s own life then it is an unusually candid one that delves deeply into his psychological state and reveals memories of past love affairs. The book has the wistfully nostalgic feeling of a memoir, sometimes humorous and often touching. Like many of Hamsun’s works, the narrative has a very meandering feeling, seemingly following a course of unconnected observations as the protagonist moves from place to place. Though the subtle plot may create the illusion of haphazardness, Hamsun gradually builds an emotional tension that drives the reader forward to each successive chapter. Though the narrator possesses a youthful wanderlust, he is no longer a youth. There are indications that he may have suffered some psychological trauma in his former life. Despite his penchant for manual labor, he possesses a sensitive soul and takes matters of the heart seriously, perhaps too seriously. Towards the end of the book the narrator exhibits behavior that verges on creepiness, at least by today’s standards, but you nevertheless feel strongly for him because of the uncompromising realism and sensitivity with which Hamsun renders his emotional state.

The English translation by W. W. Worster presents some difficulties. The translator retains Norwegian titles like Fruen (lady, wife, Mrs.) and Frøken (Miss), and the less common praestefruen (minister’s wife, I assume). One awkward aspect of the text is the repeated reference to the “thumbnail” of a smoking pipe that Knud is crafting. Not only is the use of this term in reference to the pipe unclear, it also takes on a bizarre and unexpected meaning later in the book.

The conclusion of Under the Autumn Star is sufficiently resolved for it to stand alone as a complete novel, but it also anticipates the next volume in the trilogy. After having enjoyed this first installment, I look forward to following this wanderer into book two.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx by Max Beer



A decent overview, but not for beginners
Karl Marx
You can’t really read a great deal of literature and history published in the last 150 years without coming across Marxist themes and ideas. Love it or hate it, Marx’s philosophy was a world-changing event, the effects of which still persist to this day. For all his monumental influence, however, American students are unlikely to encounter anything but the most cursory mention of Marx in school, unless you majored in philosophy or economics. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Friedrich Engels is brief and pretty easy to follow, but it seems a rather incomplete expression of Marx’s philosophy, more propaganda than treatise. If you really want to know what Marx is all about, you’ve got to read Capital, which is hardly a book for novices. Unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to tackle that intimidating tome, I was hoping to find an intelligent primer that would give me an overview of the main components of Marx’s philosophical system. This led me to The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, a 1921 publication by Austrian Marxist scholar Max Beer.

The contents of the book are definitely more Teaching than Life. Beer devotes few pages to biography and chooses to focus primarily on Marx’s writings. Before he even gets into Marx, however, Beer first provides an introduction to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Marx was a follower of Hegel, and a grasp of Hegel’s concept of the dialectic is integral to an understanding of Marx’s work. Beer also goes into a lengthy synopsis of the philosophy of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French Socialist philosopher who sparred with Marx over a number of intellectual issues. Though I suppose this overview of Proudhon may be necessary for clarifying the finer points of Marx’s thought, it feels a bit tangential. Likewise, it seems a strange choice by Beer to devote a large portion of the book’s conclusion to the economic theory of David Ricardo, as opposed to handling that earlier in the book. The most bothersome part about these side trips is not so much that they distract from Marx but rather that Beer writes about his subjects as if he assumes you’ve already read their work. In fact, it is difficult to determine who exactly Beer wrote this book for, as it doesn’t read so much like an introduction to Marxist thought as it does a recap, a sort of postgraduate cheat sheet. Beer includes too many extended quotes from Marx’s works in the text when that space would have been better occupied by more summation and explanation.

Thankfully, there is still room for Beer to outline the fundamental concepts of Marxism, as I had hoped. Chapter IV: The Marxian System takes up the entire second half of the book, and for the most part delivered the overview I was hoping for. Again, it is not written for the philosophical rookie, so Beer’s text is not always easy to follow. Some of the more mathematical economic theory, like the calculation of surplus value, is written out in paragraph form, when simple equations or charts would have been much more helpful.

Admittedly, one of the qualities that attracted me to this work is its brevity. The printed edition was only 130 pages long. Once I got into the ebook, however, I realized those must have been some pretty dense pages because this work is by no means a brief, easy read. In some respects, Beer succeeded in answering my questions about Marx, but in others he still left me scratching my head. This work is likely too elementary for real graduate students of philosophy, but I would only recommend it to those lay readers who have a serious interest and considerable experience in reading philosophical texts.
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Monday, September 11, 2017

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse



The life of the mind, the life of the flesh
Set vaguely in the Middle Ages, Hermann Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund tells the story of the friendship between two monks who meet at a monastery. Narcissus, a young teacher at the school, is the model of a pious scholar, with a brilliant mind disposed toward logic and philosophy. Goldmund, a newly arrived student, is also very bright, but bears a reckless, lusty, artistic soul that ultimately leads him to depart the cloister for a life of wanderlust.

The book’s title and promotional copy lead one to believe it will depict a dichotomous conflict between these two characters and their opposing natures—“A raging battle between flesh and spirit,” as the cover of my paperback copy hyperbolically exclaims. Rather than giving equal time to both sides, however, the book is really about ninety percent Goldmund, ten percent Narcissus. The bulk of the narrative follows Goldmund on his travels as a wandering adventurer, and for the most part the reader is happy to accompany him on his journey. His spiritual quest resembles that of the title character of Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, but much more grounded in an earthly realism with which the modern reader can identify. As Hesse presents it, the vagabond life, free from responsibility, is quite seductive. Though Goldmund faces hardships along the way, he finds no shortage of offers of food and lodging, and women are constantly throwing themselves at him.

In other novels, such as Beneath the Wheel and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse paints an equally seductive and rather utopian picture of monastic life—the rewards of study, the joys of quiet contemplation, the brotherhood of scholars—while stressing that physical action and bodily pleasures are also essential to a happy and meaningful life. In this novel, he approaches this antithesis from the other side: Narcissus and his life of the mind are given the short shrift in order to concentrate on the earthly life and bodily pleasures personified by Goldmund. We see Narcissus praying, fasting, and conducting administrative duties at the monastery, but we learn nothing about his scholarly pursuits. He occasionally serves as a foil to Goldmund in friendly debates and brings out hidden qualities in the latter’s personality, inspiring him to thoughtful revelations. If there is a “battle between flesh and spirit” here, it takes place largely within Goldmund himself.

Hesse, with his interest in Jungian archetypes, makes an attempt to position Narcissus and Goldmund as personifications of the masculine and feminine sides of human nature. Goldmund’s wandering spirit and longing for freedom is attributed to his mother, who died when he was young yet still appears to him in visions. To be honest, women aren’t treated all that well in this book. They either serve as sexual partners for Goldmund or are deified as mother goddesses. Female characters have never been Hesse’s strong point; he’s definitely more at home in a monastery full of dudes. Even Hesse himself seems to grow tired of his halfhearted male/female dichotomy and lets it fall by the wayside in favor of a much more successful contrast between the two characters as embodiments of the differing intellectual natures of the artist and the philosopher.

Narcissus and Goldmund is one of Hesse’s best novels. I would put it in his top three, along with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. Though the two monks of this novel may inhabit a time and place long past, their story nevertheless imparts valuable philosophical lessons relevant to modern life. As is often the case with Hesse’s works, this book inspires personal self-reflection and may change the way you look at your own life.
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